Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 15.djvu/125

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115
THE "AUTOBIOGRAPHY" OF GEORGE COMBE.

to hold out his hand to receive a shower of palmies, it was — "Here, if you please, my dear." Whack, whack, whack; scream, scream, scream. "It is all for the good of your soul and your body, my dear." In the third year all this discipline appeared to him insufficient; and, after announcing, "I must try a severer rod of correction, my dears," he walked to a small closet in the school, opened it amid portentous silence, and brought out a short riding-whip, such as game-keepers are armed with, and with which in those days they lashed the hounds. It had a lash of knotted cord, and a short, thick handle, with an ivory whistle at the end; and with this "rod of correction" he commenced operations. The lash twisted around the hand, leaving red scores on the skin, and, where the knots struck, in some instances drawing blood.

All this torture was a substitute for teaching. There was not a map or illustrative object of any kind in the schoolroom; and only on two occasions during the four years did he ever, to my recollection, address a word to us beyond translation and grammar of the baldest description. The first of these exceptions took place when we read the description of the bridge erected by Julius Caesar over the Rhine, given in his "Commentaries." Our teacher had, according to tradition, constructed a model of the bridge with his own hands, and was proud of it. The fame of its great interest had been transmitted from class to class for many years; and we counted the days which should bring us to "the brig." At last the closet was opened in profound silence, and the model brought out.

It was placed on a chair in the middle of the floor, and we began to read the description. As there were many technical terms, he helped us by explaining them, and with conscious pride pointed out each stake and beam as we proceeded, and showed us its connections and uses. The reading and expounding lasted for several days, during which all the lessons were better learned than usual, complete silence reigned, and not a blow was struck. We thought ourselves in paradise. But the model was removed, monotony recommenced, and the arm and "the tawse" were again employed to do the work of the teacher's brain.

The noise and inattention which provoked the teacher and led to much of this severity were the natural consequences of our condition. Fully half of the seats stood apart from the wall, and had no backs. In summer we sat on them from 7 to 9 a. m., from 10 to 12, noon, and from 1 to 3 p. m.; and in winter, from 9 to 11 a. m., and 12 to 2 p. m., without any intellectual occupation, except hearing the lessons repeated over and over again as they descended from the top to the bottom of the class. There was suffering from an uneasy position of the body, and nearly absolute vacuity of mind; and this at an age when every fiber of the brain and muscles was glowing with nervous activity. If physiology and the laws of mental action had been known in those days, everything might have been different. The silence, pleasing excitement, and general good behavior which reigned when we had an intelligible object presented to us, clearly indicated what was wanted to render us all happy; but the hint was not taken. In point of fact, there was no other rational knowledge adapted to the young mind in our teacher's brain: ex nihilo nihil fit[1] was exemplified in his whole teaching; for the other instance of attention alluded to was due to the occurrence of a thunderstorm, which frightened us by its darkness and proximity. This led him to describe a previous storm of the same kind, which had ended by a thunderbolt striking the front of the Royal Infirmary, quite near to the High School of those days, and breaking the windows on that side. He gave
  1. From nothing, nothing comes.